With the recent tragedy of yet another mass shooting, all sorts of voices are rising, many trying to label the biggest roots of this continued problem in the US.
Two republican congressmen, Brian Mast & Matt Bevin (the latter endorsed by the NRA,) saying that the problem isn’t guns, it’s “the culture of violence… hollywood movies… video game market… look at Call of Duty, look at movies like John Wick.” (Mast, NPR) “You look at the culture of death… there are video games that, yes, are marked for mature audiences, but kids play them and everybody knows that and there’s nothing to prevent a child from playing them. It celebrates the slaughtering…” (Bevin, iHeartRadio)
I’ll be up front here- I’m tired. Tired of children being gunned down, of unstable and vile people having easy access to dangerous weapons; of politicians blaming anything and everything to brush the broken, poorly-legislated industry of firearms under the rug because that’s who’s lining their pockets. Today though, let’s talk about why I’m so tired of the “video games make people violent” argument.
First and foremost, I will respectfully address congressman Mast’s concerns; the congressman notes that entertainment media such as his two examples are violent; why would I disagree? Call of Duty is literally a franchise built off of war and it’s by no means alone. First, let’s acknowledge that this series is still a work of fiction, historical and somewhat realistic fiction, but all the same fiction. Though I have not played it longer than 10 minutes in my entire life, don’t consider it my taste whatsoever, and I find Activision to be cynical for a few reasons, I don’t honestly believe these games are made to glorify war. I watched a sequence from Call of Duty WW2 that depicted the storming of Normandy beach on D-Day 1944. True to history and alongside many entertainment industry recreations of this event, the soldiers are gunned down, blown to bits, and left lying dead in the sand, drenched by saltwater and blood. Yes, this is violence, no matter how historically accurate or realistic. However, when games like this depict war, it very rarely suggests war is a good thing.
Most often, in both movies and games, more realistic war is recreated showing fearful men trying to hold themselves together in the face of their very possible last moments of life lest they end countless others first. And in truth, that is my perception and I personally believe that was the intention of the developers. War is a horrible thing, but it’s compelling to people. We wouldn’t have so many different movies, books, shows, and games about it if it wasn’t! So yes, that’s the aspect of Brian Mast’s argument that holds water.
I have studied the rating system of video games in the United States thoroughly; consequently, that research leaves me even more frustrated by this sort of example because, to be perfectly honest, there are far worse games that perpetuate violence. I love video games; they have the potential to be vibrant, heart-gripping, ingenious interactive experiences, absolute pieces of art in their own right.
However, I won’t deny that there are games that fit the narrative these politicians push, but they’re so tightly regulated that they can’t have a whole lot of impact on people. Manhunt (2003), for example, was at the center of a great deal of controversy for its extremely realistic depictions of violence. Unlike the aforementioned sequence in Call of Duty WW2, the player’s character is a death row subject who has to execute gang members and receives ratings for their performance; the worst part of this is how realistic the murders can be, such as the ability to suffocate a man with a plastic bag. If you’re going to argue against video game violence, I’d say that’s the best example- one where a player could essentially be taught how to kill a real person with frighteningly simple methods.
Congressman Bevin, however, makes the argument more clearly- the concern is that these games perpetuate violence and young children are playing them. He’s half right. Children are playing games like Call of Duty despite mature labels, even Activision knows that. The trouble with saying there’s nothing stopping children from playing these games is that any video game rated M and above cannot be purchased unless someone is over 18. These children get their hands on these games because, very often, their parents don’t know. My aunt wouldn’t allow her 13-year-old to play Assassin’s Creed 4, a game where blood effects can be turned off, death is required to advance the story, but taught to the protagonists as sometimes a mistake and something not to be celebrated. Simultaneously, her 10-year-old was telling me about playing Mortal Kombat X, a game so graphically violent despite being fictional and hyperbolic that I get nauseated just looking at, at a friend’s house.
A parent should be responsible for their children being exposed to excessive violence, even if they can’t necessarily stop them from finding work-arounds like so. As a kid I played Sims a lot and my mom felt I was too young to be watching stylized simulated humans having sex or making out. I found it silly, but her argument was “I don’t want you to make Sims do things you aren’t old enough to do.” The principle is a bit different with violent content, but at its core it’s the same: you need to be able to differentiate what’s appropriate in real life from what you see in entertainment. Additionally, you need to be aware of how entertainment can be an influence; children will imitate cartoons, I was certainly one of those kids screaming in the streets pretending to go super saiyan, as an adult I recognize content I grew up with generates positive emotion towards similar productions because of nostalgia, and it definitely cultivated my sense of humor. It’s important to be self-aware.
Moral of the story is, there’s plenty of violent entertainment, but the line between fiction and reality is clearly marked, it’s parents’ responsibility to teach their children how to recognize that, and I’m not about to go stab up a local park just because I like to murder demons in Dragon Age Inquisition. If anything, I’ll be much calmer after some good virtual demon murder.
Freelance cartoonist, illustrator, & writer
School of Visual Arts Alumna